PlayStation Vita: Is It Better to Burn Bright Than to Fade Away?
Four years. Four years since PlayStation Vita made its bow in the west and still, despite many naysayers sentencing the handheld to an early grave, Sony’s portable continues to truck along under the shadow of its console brethren. In hindsight, it’s been a funny old road for the PS Vita, which debuted in 2012 touting the promise of console-quality gaming on the go and a stellar launch library that included Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Super Stardust Delta and much more.
As time worn on, though, Sony’s strategy altered to reflect the relatively lowly sales figures, quietly nudging the device toward becoming the cult device of the modern PlayStation ecosystem. By 2014, the PlayStation Vita was aligned as a less of a standalone hardware and more of a supplementary experience to the PlayStation 4, all thanks to the Remote Play functionality.
The Platform That Could
Truth be told, it’s a feature that should have been championed from the get-go, and while the list of compatible PS3 games left much to be desired at the time, it was an enticing addition to what was — and largely still is — a technological powerhouse. Marketing missteps and missed opportunities are arguably the key reasons why the console is now viewed as a “legacy platform” going into 2016. Couple this with proprietary memory cards and their exorbitant prices and Sony has in many ways painted itself into a corner.
It may be one of the most passionate corners in the industry, as Vita’s impressive attachment rate attests, but the shoestring list of AAA blockbusters — ever the thorn in the device’s side — ultimately clipped its chances of replicating the barnstorming success of the PSP, let alone Nintendo 3DS. Sony Bend’s Uncharted: Golden Abyss, still one of the best experiences tailored to the platform, came and went, as did the rather excellent Killzone: Mercenary along with Japan Studio’s monstrous RPG, Freedom Wars. Then again, there’s a whole host of factors that heaped pressure on Vita from the get-go beyond its sparse roster of blockbusters, with mobile gaming arguably the most damaging.
Plus, anyone who owns a Vita — myself included — will know fine well that claiming the handheld has no games is little more than an urban myth at this point. We’re big advocates of Sony’s portable gaming machine here at PlayStation LifeStyle, having recently championed DrinkBox’s Severed as our most anticipated game releasing for the platform in 2016. But even the more zealous owners among our tight-knit band of devotees realize that the Vita’s presence only continues to wane — if not in the market then certainly in Sony’s ecosystem.
Outside of PlayStation Experience, the handheld is only mentioned in passing during the company’s major press events, and that’s a limited pool of exposure that will only continue to recede once PlayStation VR makes a splash of its own later in 2016. It’s something we’re beginning to see on both sides of the pixels, too; by aligning internal resources with the flagship PS4, numerous and indeed nascent games for the platform were reportedly scrapped early on in development.
From a potential Golden Abyss sequel by way of Sony Bend to the elusive portable version of inFamous, the Vita’s formative years could have been oh so different. Perhaps the most notable absentee from the handheld’s early foray in the market, though, was a certain sandbox phenomenon.
Ubisoft's love letter to JRPGs was well-received. Deceptively simple battle mechanics combined with a gorgeous water-colour world (and a hit-or-miss rhyming story) made for a satisfying, bite-sized adventure.
The Vita is home to several unique visual novels. If you’re considering diving in, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and Danganronpa: Goodbye Despair are great places to start. It’s insane in the very best ways and uses its anime-style and characters to tell a bizarre tale of murder. There’s a sadistic teddy bear pulling the strings. So get on that.
Fans of Disgaea are rabid. It’s strategy and tactics at its best, all wrapped inside a mixture of humour and deep-as-you-want-it gameplay. The nature of the Vita itself allows for a more jump in-and-out experience which is a great way to help you forget you’ve already sunk hundreds of hours into it.
Cooperative brawlers are rare these days, which is why Dragon’s Crown being beautiful and fun is such a treat. Select from a bevy of characters and pummel through a fantasy world rich with treasure, secrets, and enough replayability to last hundreds of hours. If you haven't tried it yet, join the rest of us!
With a robust third-person battle engine and large-scale enemies to fight, you’ll spend plenty of time dealing damage alone (or with friends). Maybe just ignore the bloated storyline though.
The Vita’s other darling strategy game, Frozen Synapse: Tactics puts you in a turn-based game setting up moves at the same time as your opponent. Flick the switch and you watch your brilliance play out with glee or dread.
Gravity Rush is the story of Kat, an interesting protagonist who gains the power to manipulate gravity to help her fight all sorts of baddies. The third-person action game boasts a unique combat system that is a challenge to wrangle at first, but in time becomes second nature. Play the first one now before details of the sequel hit.
Still unmatched in style, Guacamelee! introduces players to a world of Mexican folklore. Able to stand beside classics of the MetroidVania-genre, Guacamelee! includes masterful platforming, combat, and some truly inspired pop culture references. Add to that a really fun and challenging platinum trophy and you have a bonafide winner.
What more needs to be said about Hotline Miami? It oozes personality through every bruised and bloodied pore. It attains a combination of stick-accuracy and touch controls that fit like a glove –a hyper-violent, bloody glove. Its addictive formula will have you racking up combos while questioning your own morality. Play it now while we wait for the sequel coming this spring.
Killzone: Mercenary is a title that proves what Vita set out to do – provide console-quality experiences in the palm of your hand. Even though it’s a little on the short side, it makes up for it with a replayability and a suite of multiplayer options.
One of a handful of games to use the touchscreen to great effect, Little Big Planet PS Vita gave players a pocket-sized version of the create-your-own-fun platformer stocked with content that should charm even the grumpiest of cats.
Luftrausers takes its unique aged yellow look and infuses it with an addictive customization system and controls that actually make you feel like you’re strapping into one of the scraps of metal you’ll be flying. Gamers loved it so much, the studio announced it was profitable after only a few days on sale.
Minecraft. It’s literally everywhere. It may be tough to claim Minecraft: Vita Edition as one of its strongest incarnations, but it’s also arguably the best way to play on the go.
Muramasa Rebirth is art, plain and simple. But beyond the visual flair is a robust side-scrolling brawler with two separate campaigns. With a strong crafting system, wonderful boss fights, and a dash of humour, this one will keep you busy for a while.
If you said Persona 4 Golden was the best game on the Vita, you’d get few complaints. It’s a well-written masterpiece with great characters, a flawless soundtrack, slick upgraded graphics, and that delicious turn-based JRPG goodness fans of the genre go nuts for.
This action RPG pits players against giant enemies within the Ragnarok Online universe. The battle system allows for massive combo attacks in the air and on the ground with up to four players in cooperative gameplay. Check out our review!
A classic platformer reborn in another beautiful UbiArt Framework title, Rayman Origins combines solid platforming with a speed that often reaches Sonic the Hedgehog velocity. Precise and stunningly charming, the franchise continues to impress.
Instilling the rogue-like genre with some permanence, Rogue Legacy lets you battle through a side-scrolling dungeon meant to make you cry. Don’t worry! When you die you’ll be born again as a descendant of your previous hero blessed or cursed with some form of game-changing trait.
Sounds Shapes is as addictive as it is unique. Bolstered by a great soundtrack, the platformer uses ingenious mechanics to make the music game genre feel fresh again. With a level-builder included, you’ll be able to play new content for a very long time.
Housemarque knows its bread and butter. When you can repeatedly nail twin-stick shooters that play as good as they look, you’re doing it right. Super Stardust Delta offers the same visual pop as its console counterparts and gives you that dangerous “one more try” addiction on the go.
Media Molecule knows just how to get through the our crusty gamer exteriors and strike us right in the cute. In addition to sporting a unique papercraft presentation, Tearaway is a one-of-a-kind experience that incorporates the player and their choices in ways that constantly impressed and delighted. Play the original before the PS4 follow-up.
One of Vita’s best looking games was one of its first. While Uncharted: Golden Abyss isn’t exactly the most inspired adventure for Drake and Co., it still offered an early glimpse of the system’s potential.
There are few games that will make you jump from your couch and pump your fist more than Velocity 2X. A perfect blend of fast-paced gameplay and tight controls, it's a symphony of old-school, top-down bomb-spewing spaceship shooter and fiendishly crafted side-scrolling platformer.
The Vita pulls very few punches in its quest to offer its supporters what its console big brother does. The Walking Dead is a triumph of storytelling and emotion in games. If you haven’t jumped on the Telltale bandwagon yet, give it a shot. Though be warned, playing on the Vita means everyone on the bus with you will see you cry. Catch up before the inevitable Season 3.
Another unique story-driven title to grace the Vita, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is a gripping story that pits nine hostages against one another in a deadly game of survival. It’ll make you question your integrity as your alliances give way to betrayal in the name of self-preservation. If more people play this gem, we might even see another instalment.
It’s no secret that Sony missed the boat by not securing Minecraft Vita as a day-one launch title. Hindsight is 20-20, of course, but considering that Mojang’s title didn’t grace the handheld for more than two years after it launched — at a time when the Vita’s battle with 3DS for the market lion’s share was all but over and the device was fast becoming a legacy platform under the shadow of PS4 — reads like a missed opportunity. Too little, too late.
It was by no means the only offender, though; soon after Call of Duty: Black Ops: Declassified and Resistance: Burning Skies, third-party support began to peter out rather fast, leading Sony to double down on sustaining the healthy indie community that’s lent the Vita its cult status.
Few in Number
That’s not to say the handheld’s lineup was completely devoid of high-profile releases in the years that followed; from the aforementioned Killzone: Mercenary to Soul Sacrifice and even Japan Studio’s Freedom Wars, Vita owners had access to a string of notable titles that put the console through its pace, even if they were few and far between.
Looking further afield and 2016 is no different in the sense that most of the marquee releases — World of Final Fantasy, Danganronpa V3, Cosmic Star Heroine, Mighty No. 9, Hyper Light Drifter et al. — will be available on PlayStation 4 as well. All is not lost, however. Gio Corsi, ever the champion of Sony’s powerful little companion, revealed recently that, before production begins in earnest, a lot of studios are presented with the opportunity of developing a Vita port.
“[Vita] has its own host of challenges. I’m not gonna deny that, we all know that’s true! [laughs] But a lot of studios out there love working with the Vita or are excited by the technical challenge of working with the Vita. When we do a project, we always say, ‘Are you open to doing a Vita version?’ and that’s usually met with a positive. People really love that platform – it’s the platform that could.”
Exactly how successful those talks prove to be will largely be told in time, though considering that both Gravity Rush and Tearaway journeyed in the opposite direction, we but can’t help but wonder if Vita developers are asked whether they’re open to releasing a PS4 version as well.
Trying to map out PlayStation Vita’s immediate future therefore becomes really rather difficult. Simply decreeing that the handheld is dead in the water reads like a sweeping generalization. Yes, the fact that ports for Hand of Fate, Broforce and, more recently, Not a Hero were all canned gives an indication of the effort it requires to develop said port, and what happens when projected sales figures ostensibly render a Vita version redundant.
Even still, it wasn’t too long ago that Mike Bithell’s Volume made the jump to Vita — greeted with impressive sales, no less — while a handheld version of Axiom Verge is still, at the time of writing, languishing in development. That added effort has been seen on both sides, too, with Sony actively stepping in to help shepherd The Banner Saga to the device before the turn of the year. Small steps, sure, but the sales boon for Volume emphasises just how vocal the Vita community can be.
Just got the numbers for yesterday… Wowsers Vita owners, you’re making me feel all special and stuff. Appreciate your support! 🙂
— Mike Bithell (@mikeBithell) January 7, 2016
Sony hasn’t disclosed individual platform sales in its fiscal reports since 2012, meaning its difficult to pinpoint Vita’s lifetime sales with absolute certainty, but reports indicate that said figure is simmering north of 13 million units as of late 2015. That’s a far cry from the 80+ million sold by PSP, but it’s worth remembering that the Nintendo DS was by and large its sole competitor at the time, not the App Store.
The Song Remains the Same
For PlayStation Vita, Sony hasn’t cut ties with its beloved handheld just yet. Third-party AAA support may be dwindling, but perhaps out of necessity the device has become more of a thriving hotspot for indie darlings, quirky Japanese titles and tactile platformers, and less a platform that boasts console gaming on the go.
It’s been a funny old road for Sony’s handheld, though signs point to the PlayStation Vita motoring on for the foreseeable future, even if the Japanese platform holder’s attention, marketing and stage time will soon be occupied by PlayStation VR. The install base may have plateaued, but so long as the two-fold relationship between developers supporting the device and consumers picking up those ports — not matter how long they take to arrive — Vita will continue to exist as “the platform that could.” Let’s just hope we’ll be saying the same when its 5th birthday rolls around.